Sunday, September 14, 2008

ETHIOPIA: Final Thoughts

I had an incredible time in Ethiopia. Despite being sick on and off for too much time during my first month I still enjoyed my entire time immensely. It’s a great country with great people. Although I have written plenty about the annoyance of people yelling stuff at this faranjo it was never done with any malice. I really only had positive experiences with all the people I met. From those I worked with, especially Meron to Serkie from Cocoon Burger & Juice to Dawit and Mahi at Mr. Martin’s Cozy Place to my interactions with taxi drivers and people who just want to talk to a faranjo were all great. I hope to return to Ethiopia some day and see those people again.

Some other thoughts:

I am happy to report that I took minibuses more than taxis but walked most of all.

Bahir Dar will always hold a special place for me. It was my first trip outside of Addis. It was a weekend that I needed at that time. I remember feeling like the Morgan Freeman character from The Shawshank Redemption while riding on the bus. I was entranced by the countryside and alternatively excited and nervous about the trip itself. But, like Red in that movie, I felt a hopeful anticipation for what lay ahead.

Ethiopia is a country with so much to offer. It’s culture, it’s history, it’s beauty. This is a place that more people should visit. The Ethiopian tourist department should do a much better job of advertising. Especially Lalibela but also places like Harar. And I am sure there are many more places that I never got to that are worth going as well.

So that’s it. That’s Ethiopia. Or more correctly, this is my impression of Ethiopia from three months of being there. It doesn’t tell the whole story of Ethiopia but it’s my story. Maybe it will continue some day.

ETHIOPIA: Lalibela

Lalibela is amazing. I’d say that Lalibela is probably the second most amazing place I have ever visited. The Grand Canyon takes first place in my amazing rankings. I don’t think I can even do justice to how amazing it is with my description or photos. Lalibela has rock churches built like 900 years ago. Not just churches carved into rock but churches entirely freed from the rock. Think of a rock face you can walk over. All rock all the way down. The churches are dug out of the rock so what you are left with is a quarry with a church standing in it. I can’t describe how amazing it is and it is more amazing when you realize that there are 11 of these churches within 42 km of Lalibela and they were all supposedly built within 23 years. Scholars still argue over how they were exactly made although the locals just say that god and angels helped out or that god made the rock like mud so it was easy to make the churches. Regardless, it is still amazing. We only saw the three groupings (5 or 6 total churches) that are within Lalibela itself.

Iris was still hobbling along on her “sick foot” so we went nice and slow through the churches. I think this slow down allowed me to enjoy it all even more. I was able to soak in how incredible it all was and appreciate it that much more. I give Iris a lot of credit for continuing on through all the churches as the ground was rocky and uneven and must have been extremely difficult for her to transverse. I’m not glad that Iris was injured but I am happy that we went through the churches at a snail’s pace. Really amazing.

Lalibela isn’t much of a town. It’s more like a large village. But nice to walk around and buy souvenirs. I got a nice scarf supposedly made by some local monks. A restaurant had some very tasty local honey. Thick and raw it was great spread on some fresh bread. I also visited a tej beat and upon the waiter’s instructions had the medium tej rather than the strong. The medium was strong enough. At the tej beat I met a couple from Sweden that knew a friend I work with and her boyfriend. So the small world continues in Ethiopia.

Although I was still called a faranjo in Gondar and Lalibela Iris took almost all of the attention away from me. Iris is Filipino and very pretty. While walking around with her I didn’t get stared at like I usually do as all the focus was on her. “Konnichiwa!” or “Hey, Chinese!” were the most common shout-outs to her. Her response was always the same: “I’m not Chinese/Japanese/Korean” or whatever other country they shouted at her. No one ever got Philippines, though. Iris said she was determined to put the Philippines on the map in Ethiopia and that’s why she responded to everyone who yelled something at her. Conversely, I kept to my unwritten rule to ignore shout-outs. But in Lalibela the tendency was to yell the country of origin. (“Hey Chinese!”) There seemed to be many tourists from Spain in Lalibela at the same time. I laughed as I heard “Hey Spanish!” followed by “Hey English!” and finally “Hey American!” after ignoring the first two. But this was only shouted at me when I was alone.

I can’t recommend Lalibela enough. Ethiopia needs to conduct better marketing. These churches should be must see for traveling people interested in different cultures and history. Amazing.


Gondar, which I constantly mispronounced as Gondor (from The Lord of the Rings), was nice but the two days we spent there was too much. Gondar was the place everyone said you had to see along with Lalibela. I suppose I was just expecting so much more. It’s a nice town with a center piazza and it was very walkable. We arrived in the morning and by early afternoon we had seen most of the big highlight sights. The castle ruins were excellent and gave a great perspective to the vast history of Ethiopia. It was certainly worth visiting but didn’t live up to all I heard and pales in comparison to Lalibela as a place to visit.

The above photos courtesy of Iris as my camera was acting up.

Gondar is used as a staging town for people who are going to spend a few days in the Simien Mountains. As a result every person with a taxi or minibus wants to take you to the mountains. When informed that I was only staying for another day the offer changed to a half-day trip to see baboons. I was told by another faranjo that the half-day trip would not bring me close to the Simien Mountains but that it was probably worth going out there. So the next morning I went on a half-day trip. Iris had a “sick foot” as she injured it before arriving in Ethiopia. As a result she didn’t join me on this trip which involved a hike to see baboons. I talked them down to Birr 250 for the hour drive out to the area and back. I paid an extra Birr 50 to the herdsman that led the way through game trails until we got to the area where the baboons hang out. I had a fantastic time hiking through the mountains. The scenery was gorgeous. I can’t say enough about what a beautiful country Ethiopia is. I am disappointed that I was there only during the rainy season as I would like to compare the lush landscape I viewed with how it looks during the non-rainy season. I did see baboons but never got close enough to see their “bleeding heart.” Gelada baboons have a unique red marking on their chest. So I am told as I couldn’t verify based upon the distance and my inadequate camera. All in all it was a nice trip.

You need to play "Where's Waldo" to find baboons int he above photos.

After this trip I returned back to Gondar. The same people who offered me the half-day trip all wanted to drive us to the airport the next day. It seemed like everyone in Gondar knew Iris and I were leaving the next morning. Everywhere I went I ran into someone wanting to set up a taxi to the airport for the next morning. My negotiating skills still aren’t anything to write home about. But because I still haven’t met up with Iris yet after my side trip I held to my guns and didn’t commit to anything. I figured if I was getting asked every 10 minutes if I needed a ride then Iris may have been also. I wanted to speak to Iris before I did anything. I still hadn’t seen Iris by the time evening came and by this time the offers for an airport taxi had gone from Birr 80 for both if us to Birr 40. I didn’t think we would ever get lower than Birr 20 each so I made the arrangements and gave Birr 20 as a down payment. As it turns out Iris didn’t make any arrangements. The next morning the taxi was a little late and the guard at the hotel laughed when I told him that I gave some guy Birr 20 as a down payment. “Do you think they’ll show?” “You never know.” Was all he would say. Another taxi passed by and said he would take us for Birr 70 and incredulously claimed that no one in their right mind would bring us to the airport for Birr 20 each. Then our taxi showed and I paid the other Birr 20 and off to the airport and then Lalibela.

One highlight of Gondar was a coffee ceremony that Iris and I went to. A young man had taken a shining to Iris and followed us around quite a bit. He invited Iris to a coffee ceremony at his mother’s house and I tagged along. We ended up at his older sister’s house. Along with her two little precocious children (the two year old called me faranjo non-stop and they both sung and danced to whatever pop songs came on the radio.), and grandmother we had a traditional coffee ceremony. The coffee beans were roasted, then ground and then we had three cups as called for in the ceremony. I really had a great time playing with the kids and interacting with the rest of the family. It was one of those events that I wasn’t looking forward to (it was raining fairly hard and I really didn’t want to walk the 10-15 minutes from the hotel to the house) but turned out to be very enjoyable. I’m glad I went.


After a long plane ride I arrived back in New York just over two weeks ago. Just two weeks. It seems so long ago that I was in Ethiopia. Work and school began again almost immediately after I returned. I must have said a million times “Did you read the blog?” to people who I thought were reading the blog but asked me questions explicitly answered within it. Because of work and school and catching up with family and friends since my return I haven’t written about my last week in Ethiopia or any other parting thoughts. So here goes.

Due to time constraints in my last week I had decided to fly to Lalibela and Gondar rather than taking a bus. I had booked tickets from Addis to Lalibela and then to Gondar and back to Addis. I was traveling with my friend Iris who stopped by Ethiopia on her way to Uganda and then Tanzania. Iris tried to book the same flights but the flight from Addis to Lalibela was sold out when she went to confirm. So we both spent quite a while in the Ethiopian Airlines office and were able to switch flights around and ended up going to Gondar first then Lalibela. This worked out better as Lalibela was so much better than Gondar and I think if we had done Lalibela first Gondar would have been even more of a disappointment. Luckily, Ethiopian Airlines does not charge change fees so I was able to change all my flights. I did have to pay the 5% I saved by initially booking on-line, as I had to go to the office to change. The flights were quick and easy and worth doing even though you miss out on seeing the countryside. The flights were also more expensive than I was expecting but Ethiopian Airlines charges faranjo prices. Ethiopian residents pay about 50% - 60% less for flights.

The trips to Gondar and Lalibela will have their own separate posts.